Monday, July 27, 2009

The Art and Science of Cooking Well

Cooking is an art with scientific principles behind it. The fast food industry has taught us that, at least: if I take these identical things and cook them in this identical way then I will get an identical result regardless of whether the cooking is done by a top chef or a complete boob. Science, as a gateway to technology, opened the door for the mechanization of food preparation because cooking can be regarded as a science in many ways (predominantly chemistry with some biology/ecology thrown in from time to time). For me, though I have scientific training, cooking is an art.. a discipline with few, if any rules, in which the formulas (recipes) are suggestions that can never actually get you anywhere great although they'll get you somewhere nice every time.

Cooking well is a multisensory experience that requires attentiveness and background. Things have to smell right; they have to feel right; they have to look right; the cooking often enough has to sound right, and in the end they have to taste right. All of that has to come together for cooking to come off well. The recipe matters only a small amount in comparison, and once those things are understood, one no longer needs to pay attention to much else. I, in fact, usually invent recipes in my imagination, tasting the ingredients in my head before I put them together and then being able to realistically predict what will happen when those things meet in a bowl or a pan. In that way the process feels very organic and natural, not contrived or forced. Getting there is a matter only of acquiring some knowledge, experiencing it for yourself, experimenting a little, and (the secret to all of my success in any of my endeavors) paying attention to the process and results.

Here's how the five usual senses play a role in my cooking, along with a note about the one rule that cannot be forgotten (probably the only rule in cooking, I think, once you're comfortable with it):

The Only Real Rule: What Goes In Usually Can't Come Out
This is simple but has profound implications in the kitchen. If you add too much salt, the only remedy for that problem, really, is to upsize the entire recipe, which often enough is impossible. Too salty usually is just too salty (and if you're a hard-core like I was in my early days, you eat it anyway to teach yourself why too much salt is a mistake to avoid). Typically, play by the equivalent formulation of this rule: you can always add, but you can only rarely take away. If your soup gets too thick, add more water. If you make it too thin from the beginning, enjoy your thin soup (reducing it will probably destroy the character of whatever is in the pot that isn't liquid and pouring some off will pour out all of that flavor resulting in a smaller amount of thin soup with more chunky bits). This rule pertains particularly to the following: salt, seasonings, and spicy stuff (hot sauce or peppers or whatnot). If you go too far with those, then you've definitely gone too far. "Enjoy" what you have, and learn something from it!

Touch: It Has to Feel Right
A good stew, for instance, can be wrecked by cutting the vegetables into pieces that are the wrong size. Things that are cooked more quickly are even more sensitive to this problem. In particular, attention should be paid when cutting up the ingredients to create a proper mouth-feel with them. You don't have to cut everything to the same size, but you should cut every carrot in a dish, for example, to roughly the same size and shape. That will ensure even cooking and a more consistent, pleasant mouth feel. You don't have to play that way, but you want things to come out well. Similarly, you should pay attention to how long or short you should cook something. Some things, like broccoli, are better a bit crunchy. Some things are not so good crunchy, like potatoes. Other things, like rice and dried pasta, have to find the right place: too short is bad and too long is also bad. Feel is particularly important when making dough. If you don't develop a sensitive touch for the dough, then your bread is going to suck. That's just how it goes. Of course, things aren't so complicated... you just have to feel what you want to feel. For instance, if your dough is grainy, logic should tell you that your bread will be grainy. If a grainy-feeling bread is what you're after, rock on. Otherwise, work it more to see if it smooths out.

Smell: It Has to Smell Right
One particular gift of our evolution is that our noses are awesome at telling us if something is going to make us sick. Pay attention to how your ingredients smell. I smell all of my ingredients in the store to make sure they smell nicely... before I buy them. If something smells bad (unless it's supposed to smell bad), then it probably won't taste good. In fact, the smell that something gives off makes up a huge component of its flavor (odor is very complex while taste is very simple, speaking of how our body reads and interprets these things -- more when I talk about taste), so by smelling something, you can open the door to imagining how it will probably taste (with some exceptions). Much of the imagination that goes into cooking well is connecting with how scents and flavors will combine in the finished dish, something you can only start to imagine if you know the scents and flavors of the particular ingredients along with how they tend to change as you cook them (e.g. onions). For produce and meat, always pay attention that it smells fresh. For produce in particular, try to pick things that smell like something... a lot of big agriculture delivers produce to the grocery store that doesn't smell like much because it was picked days or weeks too early for shipping. Guess what... it won't taste like much either.

Sight: It Has to Look Right
I had a conversation once with a close friend that I never really understood until I started cooking a lot (not that he cooked!). He said he'd rather have a very nicely prepared meal that looks very elegant and lovely than a very well put-together date, that looks very elegant and lovely, to share it with. For him, how the food looked was of high importance! I just didn't (and still partly don't) understand why he feels that way, but I do realize that good-looking food enhances the experience tremendously. Seriously, look at this guy's strawberry tart and try to tell me that you don't want to bury your face in it (actually, look at a lot of his food.. it's so freaking beautiful that I can tell it's delicious without any of my other senses getting in on the act). Try to think about how your food will be presented and do little things if you have the capability and the time. Good-looking food carries with it the expectation of good-tasting food, and that expectation can enhance the perception of the flavor that you know you made really good via all of your careful efforts.

Hearing: It Has to Sound Right
This is really mostly to do with the cooking process... the sound can tell you a lot. For instance, I can now know by the sound they're making alone that my vegetables, when I sautee them to make some scrambled eggs dish, are ready to feel a little vinegar (i.e. the sauteeing business is done). Getting this skill is experience. That's it. Go cook. Pay attention. Notice that when your onions are turning translucent, e.g., they don't sound like they did when you first put them in the pan. The sounds your food makes when you're cooking it tells you a lot about the temperature of the pan (initial sounds) and residual water content of the food (during any frying exercise). In other related news, I used my Moka pot yesterday to make a lovely cup of rather burned pseudo-espresso because I couldn't use my hearing to judge things: my wife was doing dishes, I was making bread, and the kids were simultaneously watching a movie, listening to a radio, and talking their (and our) heads off. That thing makes very specific sounds that tell you when to turn off the heat. I never heard it make any sounds over all the din in the kitchen, and so the beverage came out tasting a little toasted. I still drank it.

Taste: It Has to Taste Right
This is obvious. It's also the simplest and the most profound part of cooking well. The flavors of the ingredients have to combine appropriately, the acid/fat/sweetness/saltiness balances must all be proper to create the satisfying, appropriate flavor that you're after (be that rich or bland or something in between). Experimenting, paying attention to the other senses as you go along, and cooking a lot will get you better and better at this part of things. Understanding how taste works helps a lot too.
Essentially, we have a few basic flavors that we can taste and that's about it: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, savoryness, and hot (like hot peppers hot -- pungent is a more accurate word). As far as taste goes, there is very little variation in how we perceive things: sour is sour is sour. Thus, combinations of those things make up a big component of taste. Nearly as important is smell. We get a strong olfactory component from our food (our noses are aimed straight at whatever would go in our mouths, and then inside, the two are connected), and we can detect and identify literally millions if not billions of distinct scents. Taste makes up the bulk of the experience while smell fills in the gaps (taste is the melody and the bass and the percussion, and smell is the harmony, if you like music). Furthermore, it's valuable to know that a little salt goes a long way in one respect: salt has the function (in addition to tasting salty) of making other flavors more accessible to your taste buds, i.e. the right amount of salt doesn't taste salty, it makes things taste more like themselves (i.e. it's a "flavor enhancer").

Intuition, Ispiration, and Imagination: It Has to Seem Right
Here's where good cooking becomes great: intuition on how to combine ingredients, inspiration on what things to make and how to make them, and imagination both to try to create something new as well as to play out how it will come off in your mind before you start cooking, while you're cooking it (so you can adapt as needed, mid-process), and while you're putting it onto the plate (it has to look right...). Don't be afraid to try something new once you've got a basic idea of how things work and how your ingredients taste, smell, and feel. That's where the really good stuff happens.

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